Biopics are still the trickiest genre to pin down. Try to tell it straight up, and you’re in danger of boring your audience with too much of a formal approach, like the existing Steve Jobs movie. Try to pick a certain aspect of a famous person’s life, glamorize it for entertainment value and you turn out a mess like the Cannes opener “Grace Of Monaco” (read our scathing review here) to disappear into obscurity like the “Diana” movie you probably never saw. So when someone with the kind of stylistic flair and peculiar approach to filmmaking like Bertrand Bonello comes along to tackle the biopic, the only certainties are that he’s not telling it conventionally and it’s bound to get a little messy. His exploration of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent, competing for the Palme D’Or this year, immerses itself in both principles and emerges as a failed attempt at visualizing artistic soul.
Beginning in 1974, the in-demand Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) is in incognito mode posing as Mr. Swann (the first of many Proust references) escaping to Paris to get some shut eye. In his room, with the Eiffel Tower almost completely covered in mist, he calls an publication and agrees to do an interview. The movie then jumps back to 1967 where every inch of the female body is measured, identities are reduced to numbers, and the atelier of the Saint Laurent fashion house is imagined as a sophisticated laboratory. Laurent appears constantly bored with everything around him, creative inspiration non-existent, and his overflowing agenda – conveniently dictated to him by assistants – merely an interruption to his music. Laurent’s partner and lover Pierre Berge (Jeremie Renier) lovingly feed him chocolate, the narrative transports itself to a club scene where, in the briefest of genius moments, Saint Laurent sees himself in a blonde dancer called Betty (Aymeline Valade) and asks her to work for him.
A doting letter from Andy Warhol is recited in voice-over as Saint Laurent walks around in a blood-red, and the picture again shifts to 1971 after another club scene where he meets Loulou (Lea Seydoux) who joins his entourage as lightweight and hardly-present bohemian. And so on and so forth with the crumpling of time and the potpourri of scenes as Saint Laurent’s increasing eccentricities throughout the late ‘60s to the mid ‘70s are infused by lavish art direction and obviously fantastic soundtrack.
Bonello is clearly a man who appreciates the art of visual storytelling. Regardless of how the film might make you feel, there’s no denying that. His previous effort, “House Of Tolerance,” which also premiered in Cannes main competition in 2011, garnered mixed to negative first impressions but none could deny its visual prowess. If nothing else, the attempt to envisage the interior demons of “Saint Laurent” through an extension of highfalutin dialogue and stretched out scenes of degenerative behavior is a fascinating notion.
The problem is that it’s more fascinating to think about than to actually sit through, because the result is so self-absorbed it might as well be gagging you with its fabricated style. The editing is rampant and all over the place; a good example is the sandwiching of scenes from Laurent’s life between the letter he receives from Andy Warhol and the response he gives, ultimately feeling like a name drop that is substance-free (hey, look, YSL and Andy Warhol corresponded through letters and they sound like the arrogant douche bags history tells us they are!) The character of Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) is given incredible amount of attention and presented as crucial to understanding Saint Laurent himself, yet he is dropped like a towel that accidently slips to uncover a naked body; an embarrassing accident.
Co-starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Brady Corbet, Ulliel and the rest of the French superstar cast are well soaked in the world of fashion, but one imagines that’s more due to their lovely costumes than their actual performances. No one is given any kind of room to let go completely, even when Sedoux and Tedeschi dance it feels choreographed and stifled. Ulliel’s manner of languid speech, and his wry smile, are meant to hide a tortured soul but they just end up revealing a pretentious and alienating human being. Bonello’s love of split screens is still here however, and while he rambles nonsensically with them in the last sequence of the film, the one montage that splits Saint Laurent’s collection and world affairs in the middle of the film is sheer brilliance. If only the audiences were privileged with more thought-provoking scenes like these and less dancing, drug-taking, and eyeball-fucking; scenes that largely remind one of how frequently all of this has been done before.
As with everything else, art is a matter of taste and Saint Laurent is cinema as artistic piece. Perhaps through time this hallucinatory quasi-dream of a biopic will grow in stature, but as first impressions go, the film loves itself so much it renders itself beautiful, but utterly shallow. The messy structure, which includes further time jumps in the future – a random introduction of an older Saint Laurent, the Pierre Berge-handling business affairs at irregular intermissions between exploration of a bored genius, and animal cruelty in the form of a pug OD’ing on pills – doesn’t do the film any favors. The one person it’s all about is someone who remains interesting as the fashion icon known to everyone before the film came along, but not the mostly empty character portrayed here. [C-]